The Arizona Wildcats’ roster is loaded with talent, but there’s no question who the team’s fastest player is.
That’s Eva Watson.
“Without a doubt,” said catcher Dejah Mulipola.
“She is unstoppable when it comes to speed,” adds first baseman Jessie Harper. “That’s for sure.”
For that reason, Watson is Arizona’s go-to pinch-running option.
When there’s one or two outs in an inning and one of the Wildcats’ slower runners reaches base, you can expect to see Watson put on her helmet and make her way onto the diamond.
“She just flies,” head coach Mike Candrea said. “I just love watching her run.”
And that’s virtually all Watson has done in her senior season: run.
The slap-hitting lefty has just one at-bat since March 17. In that same span, she has scored 13 runs. In total, she’s had 18 at-bats this season while scoring 17 runs and stealing five bases, putting her in a tie for the team lead.
“[Coach] has a lot of faith in me as a baserunner to read a play and take an extra base,” Watson said.
That said, Watson used to do more than that. As a sophomore, the Virginia native started in 25 games and hit .323 in 65 at-bats. As a junior, she started in 38 games in center field and led Arizona in batting average (.387).
Last February, Watson broke her tibia, forcing her to miss 19 games, but she returned toward the end of the season and was a key cog in the Wildcats’ postseason success.
“I’m not going to lie, the work I had to do to come back has actually made me into a better player,” Watson said of her injury. “Even coach has said he thinks I’m faster this year as opposed to last year. It helped correct my form a little bit. It helped me really focus on being quicker and more efficient. I think in the long run it was better for me.”
But while Watson didn’t miss a beat after the injury, she realized playing time was going to be harder to come by in her senior season with standout redshirt freshman outfielder Alyssa Palomino returning from an injury of her own.
And, initially, the thought of losing playing time to Palomino was “disheartening” for Watson, especially since they are roommates.
“In the beginning of the year there was so much competition between us, but also so much love,” Watson said. “I have so much love for [Alyssa]. I know what a great player she is. I see so much potential in her and watching her play, it gives me so much joy.”
Eventually, Palomino earned the starting job, relegating Watson to a bench role. It hasn’t been disheartening for Watson, though — quite the opposite, actually.
“I’ll give you a completely human answer,” Watson said. “It’s been so much fun, it’s crazy.
“I’ve taken on a completely different role, but it’s been so much fun. There’s still pressure because once I get put in I have one chance and then I’m pretty much burnt (for the game), so it’s a different type of pressure, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Watson’s new role allows her to spend more time mentoring her teammates (especially those that hit left-handed), since she doesn’t have to think too much about hitting.
“I notice things that they wouldn’t normally notice or I help them more off the field,” Watson said. “We’re watching things that we can see the pitcher doing while we’re chilling over here on the bench.”
Watson and Arizona’s seven other seniors have been credited with changing the culture of the program and bringing it back to where it used to be.
The Wildcats are currently on track to win the Pac-12 for the first time since 2007 and have tallied the most wins in a season since 2010, when they made their last College World Series appearance.
The senior class is talented, sure, but its leadership has been invaluable, too, especially the guidance of those like Watson, Michelle Floyd, Alexis Dotson, and Nancy Bowling whose playing time has diminished over the years.
“We have a lot of kids that have played a lot throughout their career and it just so happens that this year they’re all in different roles,” Candrea said. “And I think this year one of the unique things about this team is those kids have stepped up by handling their roles and are very supportive.
“They couldn’t be better teammates. I think that’s the one great thing I love about this team. And it’s nice to have a kid like Eva come off the bench and be able to fly like she does. We’re definitely going to need that speed down the road.”
And even though Watson envisioned providing more than just speed in her final season in Tucson, the Wildcats’ success has made it easy for her to embrace her new role.
“In the beginning I thought it would be almost heartbreaking, but I’m just so thankful that I get to be around the game and help my teammates in a different way,” she said.
“I really thought this year would go differently. That’s just me being completely honest. I thought it would make me really upset, but I don’t think it could have gone any better.”
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